Home Coming – Exploring ecological resilience and the farming communities of east-central Alberta

My fellow Schumacher College Holistic Science student Brenda Schroeder has just published her dissertation “Home Coming – An exercise in belonging by exploring ecological resilience and the farming communities of east-central Alberta”.

A copy can be downloaded here.

While Brenda’s main interest is resilience in human systems and organisation, her starting point and basis has been resilience in nature and ecology. She does this primarily through the frameworks of Fritjof Capra, as he described in “The Web of Life” and through Gunderson and Holling’s framework they called “Panarchy”.

“By first understanding more deeply what makes a living system ‘alive’ – how it organises, adapts and renews itself – I believe I will be better equipped to understand and build resilience in human systems.”

Brenda explores Capra’s text in great detail. Capra’s book is not just about his own approach to understanding natural systems. His book is an excellent starting point for being introduced to many new frameworks for understanding “life” and living systems. These frameworks range from the non-linear dynamics of chaos theory and emergence, but dissipative structures and autopoeisis – the concept that living systems are self-producing, i.e. their function is not only to reproduce, but to continually change in order to dynamically and continually re-create themselves. Life therefore is not a ‘thing” but a dynamic process, where parts can not be reduced, but only understood in relation to their context and their relationship to the greater whole.

Having explored a wide range of conceptualisations of nature and life, Brenda distills her analysis into three main components

– Process and Patterns
– Scales and Horizons
– Connectivity and Potential

Her third chapter examines each of these concepts extensively, which then gives her thesis the required structure, ready for her analysis of the farming community in the Canadian province of Alberta where she grew up, and to where she has returned after ten years of working abroad.

Brenda was influenced my much of the research that falls under the umbrella of “action research.” Her fourth chapter provides many interesting insights from the interviews and questionnaires completed with many local farmers, her own family who have farmed the land for generation, and other notable figures in her community such as Jack Hayden, the Provincial Agricultural Minister for Alberta.

An example of how rich her data is can be shown in this letter she received from one farmer, Don Ruzicka.

It wasn’t long before some asked the question, “What kind of a farmer are you?” My reply, “In the old days I would have said conventional, then organic, then holistic. However today, I manage ecosystems because if we don’t manage the wetlands, riparian areas, bush and trees, native pasture and tame pasture to be sustainable, then it doesn’t matter how we farm because we will fail. A sustainable future for growing food depends on maintaining and promoting biodiversity. It is a “gift” to figure out how much to take and how much to leave and I will be working on this until it is time for me to move on, but first, teach someone else about my successes, and more importantly, my mistakes so that they will not be repeated. Our farm is doing its best to demonstrate how important this is. Mark Wonneck, Ecologist with PFRA, has greatly influenced my thinking on this.

I went on to show them the two Riparian Health assessments that Cows and Fish had done in 2001 and 2006. I showed them the Ducks Unlimited “Natural Advantage Wildlife Habitat Report” from 2007. I told them about all of the trees we had planted and why; to attract pollinators, carbon sequestration, slow the wind, homes for birds, trap snow which melts and replenishes the aquifer. Showed them the 85 acres of sloughs and wetlands that I had fenced off to keep livestock out so that they could work full speed at supplying those all important ecological goods and services. In essence, I gave them proof that we are indeed working hard at managing ecosystems. And, it resonated well with their desire to see how some farmers approach farming with regards to BMP’s, best management practices. I am biased, but I do find this to be “exciting!”

Brenda set out to answer the following questions in her thesis:

– What do I mean by resilience and how do living systems organise for resilience?
– What is the current reality of the farming communities of east-central Alberta and what have been the forces (historical and recent) that have shaped this system?
– What would it mean to farm in order to build and maintain resilience?

In reading her dissertation, it is clear how far it has taken her on her own journey of not just understanding resilience from a theoretical or academic perspective, but from a very real understanding grounded in the workings of her own community:

Therefore being ‘resilient’ is not about holding onto a certain state but is about allowing for movement and working in that fluidity. This is why I have stressed the importance of being open to patterns and process and to becoming aware of these at higher and lower levels of scale and horizon, because this openness informs our understanding and choice of when to hold on and when to let go. It is by using our ability for abstraction and reflexivity that we can cultivate our own resilience, even though it is these same traits that often have us experiencing ourselves as separate from our ecosystems and therefore over-confident and rigid in our ways of being.

While concluding that at the current moment many institutions are not resilient, there was still a great deal of optimism that Brenda found in many inspirational people that she had met in the course of her research. In Brenda’s own words:

Walking across native prairie, cultivating vegetables in my garden, picking berries in the forest, pondering full moons and star-filled skies – I have opened up to the scales of distance and horizons of time that are deep and broad as well as local and immediate. From both levels and those in between, I have been embraced, encouraged and inspired.

I would certainly encourage you to read her dissertation in full if you are interested in ecology, resilience and sustainability.

Brenda can be contacted via her website.

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